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By Split Vote Preservation Board Gives Nod to Adams Morgan High-Rise Hotel Design Concepts Despite Numerous Board Member Objections

Accompanying images can be viewed in the June 2012 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Unanimous votes by the District’s Historic Preservation Review Board (HPRB) may become a thing of the past if the Board’s May 24th monthly meeting is a guide to how contentious HPRB cases are resolved in the future.

The meeting could have been billed as Christian Science church building controversies day. Its morning session, with all nine HPRB members participating, dealt with the First Church of Christ, Scientist building in Adams Morgan, at Euclid and Champlain Streets and the presentation by

developer Friedman Capital of a new design concept for its proposed 90-foot hotel tower that would loom over the Reed-Cooke neighborhood’s row houses and medium height residential buildings, as well as being directly adjacent to the rear of the mostly three story former row houses now for the most part retail stores and restaurants that line the east side of 18th Street in the Washington Heights Historic District.

Ninety feet is the technical zoning height of the proposed hotel tower that would be constructed behind the building that had been the First Church of Christ, Scientist — calculated from the church building’s Euclid Street front façade. The hotel, which would be constructed 28 feet behind the Church on Champlain Street, would take advantage of the descending slope of the street, adding 12 to 15 feet to its actual height, plus an additional height of 15 feet for a public access roof terrace and hotel penthouse structures; a further addition of five levels of underground parking would sit below an approximately 224 room hotel.

Following three successive monthly hearing sessions, when lively testimony, both for and against the project, was heard and entered into the record, the Board voted six to three to approve the developer’s design concept but stipulated that that approval was, in the board chair’s words, “subject to any comments that the board members have had.” Those comments were strikingly direct and went to the heart of the controversy over the proposed new structure — its height, massing, and the manner in which it would relate to the character of its immediately surrounding neighbors, especially in Reed-Cooke and on the east side of 18th Street and also on Columbia Road across the triangular park directly facing the church.

Board member comments began with those of Nancy Metzger, a new member but well-known to the historic preservation community for her long-standing leadership position with the Capitol Hill Restoration Society and for her serving as co-coordinator of the DC Historic Districts Coalition. Reflecting on her on-site observations and viewings, Metzger asserted, “I simply could not convince myself that the height and the impact of the height on the church building was compatible.”

Graham Davidson, a partner in Hartman-Cox Architects and a former trustee of the DC Preservation League, curtly dismissed the developer’s historic preservation expert’s assertions of the compatibility of the hotel building with the church building according to historic landmarking standards, and then focused on what he asserted would be adverse affects of the proposed hotel building on the Reed-Cooke and the Kalorama historic districts, especially the 18th Street row of buildings. He also pointed out that “the building’s height is really located along Champlain Street — a very narrow street — and the street is mostly buildings that are appropriate to the width of the street.” Graham further asserted that the hotel building should be 70 feet, the height of the apartment building across Champlain Street.

Several board members complained of what they perceived as a “warehouse look” to the design and of the appearance of vertical windows being tacked onto hotel floors designed for a horizontal structure. Also coming under criticism was the design for a porte-cochere on the Champlain Street side of the proposed hotel and its consequent disruption of the structure’s engagement with pedestrian traffic and the neighborhood generally.

HPRB board member Gretchen Phaeler, while noting, “I don’t feel strongly about the height as some of my colleagues,” nonetheless complained of a commercial feel to the building’s design, recommending that it “dissolve” more and fit better into the existing street vernacular, which Phaeler said she found to be part of the charm and character-defining aspect of the neighborhood.

Board member Joseph Taylor, after commending the project architects for progress being made in compatibility of the hotel design, concluded with the observation that “beginning to be compatible is not a solution but tells you where to focus.”

Member Maria Casarella, an associate with Cunningham Quill Architects, disagreed with board Chair Catherine Buell and the developer’s historic preservation expert that only compatibility of the hotel design with the yet to be designated church building should be considered, and stated that the HPRB must consider the impact of the proposed project on the immediately adjacent historic district and for that matter on adjacent neighborhoods whether they be designated historic districts or not. Casarella concluded that “there should be consideration of reducing the mass again and redesigning those elements that have the most impact.”

Archaeologist board member Robert Sonderman observed several times that the hotel building was too high — certainly on Champlain Street it was too tall; he conceded, however, that he was not sure that the height should be reduced all the way down from 90 to 70 feet.

Next Steps

Prior to the board’s consideration and vote, the Adams Morgan ANC had defeated — with a tie vote — a motion to recommend to HPRB approval of Friedman Capital’s concept design for its hotel development proposal.

Next steps for this project include public hearings before the District’s Zoning Commission, scheduled for September 6th and 13th, to say nothing of further consideration of design changes by the HPRB and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s federal tax credit staff review.

According to the Historic Preservation Office (HPO) staff report, Friedman Capital “has submitted an application for a consolidated Planned Unit Development (PUD) and related map amendment. In addition to the map amendment . . . five areas of zoning flexibility would be required. . . . The Office of Planning has suggested that the [hotel] design would be more consistent with the [Comprehensive Plan] if the building were reduced in height, with special consideration given to its relationship to adjacent buildings to the south and west and nearby buildings across Champlain Street and Columbia Road.”

HPRB’s jurisdiction over this matter remains a murky one, and the process by which the board and the HPO staff have gone forward with the consideration of this proposal has been both opaque and fluid. The hotel site is not in an historic district but does abut both an historic district and the First Church’s 1912 neo-classical revival building, said by the Historic Preservation Office to be an excellent example of such architecture; there is currently a pending application for historic landmark designation.

The church building is proposed to be incorporated into this project as the event center for the hotel complex; it would be directly connected to the hotel tower by a 28-foot-wide “hyphen” building. And, according to HPO, “an application nominating the [church] building to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites was submitted by the Adams Morgan Main Street Group in 2008. In consultation with the church and development team, HPO agreed to defer scheduling the designation hearing to allow the development team to study compatible development treatments.”

It should be added that the developer’s concerns are at least partly related to the question of the project qualifying for federal historic preservation tax credits and thus being eligible for a subsequent comparable benefit from the District — a benefit to compensate for the District having no provision for state or city historic preservation tax credits. The project has also already been granted by previously enacted city council legislation a $46 million property tax credit.

By virtue of HPO accepting this constrained application and deeming it a pending historic landmark, a raze permit to demolish the structure cannot be issued. The church’s congregation, which owns the building and site has stated that unless this project is approved it will apply for just such a permit.

Editor’s Note: For background, see “Long-Awaited PUD Application Filed for Controversial Luxury Hotel Tower on Champlain Street in Adams Morgan,” InTowner, August 2011, PDF page 1.